The Retreat of the World-Revolution – The 1921 ‘Kronstadt Tragedy’

Excerpt from: ‘The Dutch and German Communist Left (1900–68)’


In January 1921, the recognition of the KAPD as a ‘sympathiser-party’ of the Third International with a ‘permanent representative on the Executive’, (1) seemed to be a victory for the policy of opposition carried out by Gorter and Pannekoek. It was beginning to be possible for the Comintern and left-communism to work in common. At least that is how it seemed, reading Zinoviev, when he wrote in the name of the Executive Committee:

The core of the KAPD contains some genuinely revolutionary workers. This party has taken a great step towards communism recently by excluding Laufenberg, Wolffheim and Otto Rühle from its ranks. The KAPD criticises our German comrades. This is no misfortune. The KPD is not in any case immune from errors: we only need to remember its attitude during the Kapp Putsch and during the last insurrection of the Berlin electricians…” (2)

The joint work between the left-communists and the Comintern was of short duration. It did not survive the 1921 March Action in Central Germany. The international environment was becoming more and more unfavourable, not only with the very clear retreat of the world revolution, but, above all, in relation to the politics of the Russian state. The foreign policy of this state, the events at Kronstadt and, finally, the politics of the Comintern in Germany were to be signposts towards the final break that happened at the Third Congress of the Comintern. Preceded by the expulsion of the minority from the CPH, even before the Third Congress, the expulsion of the KAPD in September 1921 sounded the death-knell of an international opposition in the Comintern. However, it was the Dutch communist left that took the lead of the international opposition even outside the International. Under the guidance of Gorter, but not of Pannekoek, a Communist Workers’ International (KAI) was formed. But this ultimately became an adventure without any future. It could only precipitate the decline in the communist-left tendency in the Netherlands, as in Germany, before the rise, at the end of the 1920s, of the Group of Communist Internationalists (GIC).

As the centre of gravity of the Dutch current moved to Germany, and even to Britain and Bulgaria, the Netherlands became the theoretical and political centre of the international left-communist movement.

The Retreat of the World-Revolution

The NEP (New Economic Policy) in the economic sphere, applied in Russia after March 1921, was preceded by a diplomatic NEP on the part of the Russian state. It sought to make alliances with various capitalist states. Through the mediation of Karl Radek, imprisoned in Germany, from autumn 1919 contacts were made with the Reichswehr and its generals, (3) but also with the millionaire Walther Rathenau, with the aim of investigating the possibility of a military and economic alliance between Germany and Russia. As early as October 1919, Radek stated clearly: ‘The possibility of a peace between capitalist states and proletarian states is not a utopia’. (4) A de facto alliance directed against the Treaty of Versailles and the Allies was established in 1920, during the Russian-Polish War; Germany declared its ‘neutrality’, which meant the prohibition of the transport of Allied munitions for Poland across its territory. Commercial agreements with Allied countries were sought and obtained: one was concluded between Great Britain and Russia on 16 March 1921, at the same time as the events in Kronstadt. The modus vivendi between the capitalist world and the Soviet state, denounced previously by Pannekoek, slowly became a reality. The contours of the Treaty of Rapallo on 16 April 1922 were beginning to emerge.

But most disturbing was the complete submission of the Comintern to the national aims of the Russian state. The latter tended to make its interests predominate over the revolutionary interests of the International. Turkey provides a striking example of this antagonism. From 1919, contacts were made in Berlin, with Radek again the intermediary, between the Russian government and the Turkish-nationalist leader, Enver Pasha, who later attended the Baku Congress. Friendly relations were established with Mustafa Kemal from 1920, leading to the signature of an agreement with Turkey on 16 March 1921. Mustafa Kemal not only crushed the peasant-movement, which was supported by the Comintern, but he also executed the entire leadership of the Turkish Communist Party, who had been trained in Germany by the Spartakists and were hostile to all nationalism. This massacre did not hinder the good relations between the Russian state and Turkey. (5) For the first time, it was shown that governments seeking good diplomatic relations with Russia could assassinate and outlaw revolutionary militants, members of the Comintern, without forfeiting their good relations with the Russian state whose policies were, in principle, subordinated to those of the Comintern. These events, unfolding in January 1921, were the direct consequence of the Second Congress’s acceptance of support for so-called ‘national-liberation’ movements.



1 The representative of the KAPD was Arthur Goldstein (pseudonym: Stahl) [→ note on Goldsteins’s political trajectory]

2 Letter from the Executive Committee of 15 January 1921, published in Die Aktion, No. 13–14, Berlin, April 1921.

3 See Carr 1952.

4 Radek 1919, pp. 11–12. Radek went even further in ‘advocating a modus vivendi with the capitalist states’. See also Fayet 2004, pp. 253–315.

5 In August 1920 the Soviet government delivered 400 kilograms of gold to Mustafa Kemal; arms followed shortly afterwards. To appear radical, the Kemal government formed an ‘official’ CP, composed of a whole selection of generals, ministers and high functionaries (see Dumont 1983)